21 September 2012

Letter No. 3

The other day, I dreamt about a sort of family court, in the middle of a ruin in the jungle. It was brown and crumbling, sort of Mesoamerican-civilization-meets-Beaux-Arts, with lush trees, grass, and vines growing inside. Families — dads in their tucked-in polos and city shorts, moms in jeans and sundresses, little kids — came to the ruin to just hang out and picnic under the indoor trees.

In one part of the ruin, there was a large pool or pond. Its water was still clear, and though most of the walls were gone, the ceiling of that room was still intact. It was tiled with something like capiz shells, near transparent.

On one side of the pool sat a couple at retirement age. Their family was quite wealthy, with multiple businesses, houses, yachts, and cars. On the other side was my own grama. They all sat in folding canvas and metal chairs, as if in the park or at the beach, but they were definitely authorities about something. The sun was about to set.

The son of the wealthy couple stood at their side with his back to the wall, which had a hole big enough to see the jungle in the next room and a family picnicking there, and a kid swinging from a tree branch. Grama's granddaughter, who was not me or any of my cousins (weird, yes), stood a little apart from Grama, her back to a less damaged wall, with some steps and a dark doorway to some other part of the ruin.

The son and the granddaughter wanted to get married, and I think they'd come to the ruin to declare their intentions to their elders. None of the elders approved, though. It wasn't for the huge disparity in wealth; each family liked and respected the other well enough. But Grama and the couple agreed that their children were "too young" at 28. Grama told my mystery cousin to wait till she was 30, take her master's, and focus on her career. The young man's parents said something similar, and that it was important to wait.

I was watching from Grama's side, because, I guess, it was my family's side. But while the young man fumbled for words and the granddaughter started to stamp her feet and rant about how unfair the decision was, I got into the pool and started swimming.

The water was perfect. I moved easily, even though I was wearing a work shirt and pants. I floated on my back and kicked slowly across the length of the pool. Above me, the sky was rippling across the shell tiles in different shades of blue and gold; reflected in the water, they looked like jewels or stars. I forgot about the families and just looked up at the sky, and I thought, "Oh, how beautiful."

I think I dreamt this because just before I went to sleep, I'd finished some Archie comics, which had an excerpt from the "Married Life" series. Archie is married to Veronica and faces an important business and personal decision: should he satisfy his father-in-law and employer, yet pull the rug out from under his oldest friends?

Yet I've also been thinking about my own career for a while now.

I realized yesterday, I've done a 180. Since I was a teenager, my dream life involved settling down and having kids as soon as possible. While one tita asked me if I wasn't just conforming to society's expectations, I was actually an odd one out; most of my friends have all said that they'd rather pursue their careers and/or see the world before starting a family — if they start families at all. I, on the other hand, not only pre-selected my future children's names according to birth order and number (if my firstborn was a girl, she'd be L; if a boy, Z; if twin girls, P and F; if twin boys, B and L; etc.), but I'd also decided what kind of toys they'd play with, books they'd read, and schools they'd attend.

What's changed in the past year? It wasn't just that I was single again, though maybe that gave me more time to pay attention to what was going on around me. I cared more than ever about the economy, and whether the country could sustain all this optimism. I started to care more about where my money went, and not least because rent on a better apartment sucked up so much of it.

I also became interested in the kind of life people my age and background had in different countries, particularly around Asia. I compared their worries and aspirations with mine, and I started to imagine more clearly the decisions I'd have to make if I wanted a certain quality of life by the time I was raising kids, not just having them.

Perhaps as a result, my own aspirations changed, too. Gone is the Kat who wanted to be a stay-at-home mom in the province; in her place is some other lady who thinks being a busy, if not working mom is the way to go. And in the process, I thought about the things I wanted to keep me busy, besides family: the kind of work I'd like to do, the kind of organization I'd like to work for, and the kind of interests I'd like to be able to pursue on the side.

It occurs to me, of course, that I now sound a lot like the suited, hooked-on-career yuppies that I disdained as a wannabe bohemian. I am not, as I fantasized four years ago, writing novels and travelogues and shacking up with a painter in a charmingly old apartment near art galleries, pan-Asian furniture stores, and hip little restaurants, where the other characters from RENT meet to celebrate starving for their art. I live in a middle-class neighborhood across an upper-middle-class university and edit advertising-occasioned supplements for a business newspaper, and my boyfriend and I like to talk about China, urban planning, and a friend's tips on the stock market.

I'd like to think that the dream of swimming in an in-between pool of pixellated Van Gogh is my subconscious telling me to take a good look at my direction and decisions, before I make any more. I think of a TV spot for Suits (which I don't watch), where a biker sipping coffee sees the suited protagonist go by and tells his fellow biker, "If I ever look like that, shoot me." I think of "La Vie Boheme" from RENT, of course, with Mark celebrating "riding your bike midday past the three-piece suits" — and thinking now, "But Benny's Cyberland idea doesn't sound half bad."

Then, there's the latest Subnormality comic, where a down-on-her-luck Ethel sets up a meeting with her selves from parallel universes to see how different her own life is from theirs.

© 2012 Winston Rowntree

So I'm asking myself, if I had a meeting like that within the next five years, would I have more or less regret than the other me's who decided differently along the way? I'm already living much differently from how I'd wanted — should I be happy, knowing I have things to be happy about, or disappointed that I let go of some of my dreams along the way?

The comic (go on, read it) touched a particularly sensitive, insecure nerve, because writing is a big part of the conversation. Ethel-in-red-sweater, in the ninth-to-last panel ("You think you're never gonna succeed at writing?") says something about where I am as a writer; that is, not even close to where I once dreamed I'd be. Then there's Ethel-in-glasses ("writing: also a muscle"); some part of me still doesn't want to sound like her, but I know I'm on my way to being her, if I'm not already.

And so, the Ethels' meeting has forced me to ask a question I've been avoiding for the past couple of years.

Do I still want to write?

And if I'm honest with myself, in my bones, I know, yes, I still do — and I want to be good at it.

It's scary to say. For one thing, it doesn't seem to fit into the Ethel-in-glasses-plus-kids life I've been seeking. And for another thing, writing's a muscle I've let atrophy, at least where creative writing is concerned. I've been making all these excuses: I don't have enough experience; my voice is too middle-class and navel-gazing; every other 20-something is writing something like that; I don't know enough about Philippine culture, popular or otherwise; and I'm not as good and/or popular as X, so I don't think I should bother, anyway. But really, I've just shuffled into the vicious circle of not practicing and then being intimidated by the amount of practice I need to be "good".

Perhaps the dream ended with me still in the pool so that I could decide, in real life, at which side I'd get out. I don't think the plight of the young couple was of any real concern to me; I imagine that getting out at either family's side would have only distracted and annoyed everyone. But at the ends of the pool, there were other dark doorways leading to other parts of the ruin. I think at some point, I would have gotten out of the water and picked one.

Like last week's letter, this one has a couple of theme songs. I picked them in college to remind me of what I didn't want to be like, but now, I have doubts about the messages they send.

I want to say that the people in the boxes might actually be pursuing dreams of their own — mostly because, if I should find myself in one of those boxes, I want to be right.

1. Little Boxes, by Malvina Reynolds
And the people / In the houses / All went to the university / Where they were put in boxes / And they came out all the same / And there's doctors / And lawyers / And business executives / And they're all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same // ... // And they all have pretty children / And the children go to school / And the children go to summer camp / And then to the university / Where they are put in boxes / And they come out all the same

2. Baobabs, by Regina Spektor
And I wouldn't raise my child inside the city anyway / They grow up too savvy / And they grow up too fast / And they know about buying shit / And they know about sex / And they know about investment banking / And also about brokerage firms / And they know about the numbers / And they know about the words / And they know about bottom lines / And also about stones / And they know about careers / And about the real deals / And they all grow up to become people's people with people skills

Ethel is just one of many characters in the world of Subnormality. Her previous appearances:

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